According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person spends 8.8 hours per day at work – that’s a little over 9,000 hours per year, essentially one-third of your life. It stands to reason, then, that you’re going to want to choose a job that you truly love.
Unfortunately, economic conditions, necessity, and the simple twists and turns of life can lead you down a career path you’re not necessarily passionate about. Whether you’re stuck in a dead-end job, earning less than you want, or you simply aren’t appreciated, a negative perception of your career can be discouraging.
A 2013 Gallup poll found that among American workers, only 30% considered themselves “engaged,” while a whopping 70% considered themselves disengaged and “not reaching full potential” at work. Those are especially somber numbers in a still-struggling economy.
Even if you’re not currently working your dream job, there is hope. Whether you’re gunning for a promotion or a raise, you’re in the midst of a job search, or you want to start your own business, taking a few simple steps can help you become a happier, more employable, more valuable worker. Forget all of the old advice about resumes and cover letters – boosting your career is about taking action.
How to Boost Your Career
1. Ask for an Evaluation
It’s a bold move, but asking your boss for an evaluation can give you some excellent insight on how to improve your career. While some of the critique might sting, an evaluation can help you understand your supervisor’s point of view, give you a chance to communicate your current state of mind, and create an action plan to improve your performance going forward.
If you’re currently not working or are self-employed, reach out to past colleagues for ideas on how you can improve your skills. Solicit some constructive criticism, and offer to do the same for a coworker in exchange.
2. Cure Procrastination
My family and I always joke that we work better “under the gun.” Really, it’s just a way to justify procrastination, which can seriously affect your job performance and your career options if you’re not careful. Whether you’re putting off important emails or are having trouble getting around to some of the less-important tasks at work, you’re only hindering your own performance.
Try making a daily list of things that you need to do and number them in order of importance – this way, you know what needs to be done immediately, and what can be left on the back burner until you have some extra time. Then, simply focus on checking them off one by one. Lastly, at the top of the list, write a firm date for when everything needs to be completed, so you’re not tempted to drag your feet.
3. Take a Course
Just because you have a job, it doesn’t mean you should hold yourself back or let your skills stagnate. Taking an online course, signing up at a local school, or enrolling in a MOOC (massive open online course) can help expand your knowledge base and increase your marketability. Even if you don’t net an entirely new degree, you can still beef up your resume by becoming certified in a new skill.
This also shows that you have the motivation and enterprise needed to boost your career, which may impress higher-ups. And, if you’re self-employed, you can offer more to clients and increase your earning potential by having a course or two under your belt.
4. Make a Five-Year Plan
Creating a five-year plan can help you more easily see what steps you need to take to achieve your goals. For instance, if you’re hoping for a management position, plot out the trajectory you need to take in order to get there. It might include talking to your supervisor, taking an accounting or business course, or volunteering for additional responsibilities.
If you want to quit your job and start your own business, your five-year plan might include saving up money, obtaining financing, or finding a business partner. Dream big, target your destination, and make sure you map out how you intend to get there. Here are some simple tips on how to make – and keep – a five-year plan:
- Brainstorm Your Goals. Write down what you want to have, where you want to be, and the goals you want to achieve in the next five years.
- Note What You Can Do Now. If your goal is to snag a promotion at work, what can you do today to get started? Whether it’s seeking out a mentor or speaking with your boss, you should formulate an idea for immediate action.
- Decide What to Do in the Next Year. Not all of your goals can be achieved instantly, so plan for the future. Certification in a new skill, saving up to start a business, or setting a goal to begin a job hunt are things you may be able to do over the course of the next year.
- Reward Milestones. A five-year plan can give you the feeling that your goals are pretty far off. Set regular milestones along the way and reward yourself when you meet them.
- Have Regular Status Meetings With Yourself. Evaluate your five-year plan regularly to see what’s working and what isn’t. You may need to adjust for contingencies along the way, such as a new job offer or a potential job loss. Don’t let a change in trajectory throw you completely off-course. Instead, reconfigure and set yourself on a new path to achieving your goals.
5. Take on a Challenge
If your boss asks for volunteers for a project that’s outside of your purview, don’t be afraid to speak up and take on the challenge. It could be a huge opportunity. Not only does it give you a chance to grow your knowledge base and skill set, it also allows you to show your boss just what you’re capable of.
You become a more valuable employee and give yourself a chance to branch out and take on new responsibilities. This may lead directly to promotions, or at least major kudos from your supervisors and colleagues. You could even surprise yourself and find something you love even more than your current position.
6. Talk to Human Resources
When was the last time you made a visit to the HR office? Your human resources department offers a wealth of information for employees, particularly when it comes to benefits and advantages that can boost your career. You can get information about courses and training sessions – and you may be able to score a reimbursement on your tuition or get paid for days that you’re in training rather than at work. It’s a smart and cost-effective way to bolster your resume. What’s more, if your five-year plan includes leaving your current job for a position that doesn’t offer HR benefits, taking advantage of the opportunity now can prep you for your goals.
7. Read Up on Your Industry
Whether you’re an employee or an entrepreneur, it pays to stay updated on your industry. Trade papers, magazines, news sites, and blogs can all help you become more of an “expert” in your chosen field and propel your career forward.
Being able to talk about recent trends and findings or taking the social networking temperature of a certain issue shows those you work with that you’re not just doing a job, but that you approach your industry from a career-minded standpoint. It can also help build your authority on related subjects, making you more of a go-to source in your office.
8. Work on Your Communication Skills
A passive, wishy-washy voice – whether on the phone, over email, or in person – does not give the impression of a confident businessperson. Be a strong communicator.
After reviewing my past email correspondences, I realized just how passive they were. I set out to make them more clear, confident, and direct, which is ideal for someone in my line of work. Of course, other industries may require workers to soften their communication skills – perhaps you come off as too brusque or pushy in your sales emails, for example. Every situation is different.
Open your “sent mail” folder and read through work-related communications. Are you clear and straightforward? Do your colleagues respond well to your emails? Is there anything you can improve on? You might be surprised by some of the communication tics you’ve developed over the years. If you’d like to improve on spoken interactions as well, ask coworkers about your strengths and weaknesses – are you a little murky or abrupt at times? – and use that feedback to improve.
9. Network Within Your Industry
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been contacted by a potential client who was a friend of a friend or who found me via social networking. The key to networking and building business relationships in any industry is simply making yourself available. By maintaining professional social networking profiles, talking to others in your industry, participating in forums, and attending networking events, you increase your chances of forging solid connections that can boost your career. Get your name out there and make sure those within your industry know who you are.
10. Know What You’re Worth
Even if you absolutely love your job and the company you work for, turning a blind eye to other opportunities could mean losing precious footholds as you climb the corporate ladder. Several years ago, my husband, an architect, was given an offer by a competitor of the firm he worked for. He had no intention of changing firms, but he did take the offer to his then-boss. He explained the opportunity and asked if the firm would be willing to match the offer. His boss said yes, and he received an on-the-spot raise with increased benefits.
The takeaway from that lesson? Know what you’re worth. Whether another company is looking to hire you or you simply think you’re undervalued as an employee, surfing job boards and researching industry standards can give you a better idea of what’s out there and what you should be paid.
Websites such asare very helpful in gauging your value, as well. Simply enter your location and job description, and the site creates a graph of what others in your area are making in similar positions. Don’t miss out on an opportunity simply because you’ve become complacent.
11. Consider Your Career a Business
If you owned your own business, you’d do everything you could to make sure it was successful, right? You’d probably spend time marketing and learning ways to improve your efficiency.
Now, take those same ideas and apply them to your career. Market yourself, make sure you’re the best, most efficient employee you can be, and work to improve your skills until you snag your dream job. By investing in your skill set while cultivating a solid online reputation through social media and blogs, you can offer a better overall picture of who you are as a person and as an employee.
12. Reorganize Your Workspace
Whether you hang out on the cube farm or you have a home office, creating an organized workspace can help you do your job more efficiently. When vying for a promotion or conducting a job search, a cluttered, disorganized desk can make you feel cluttered and disorganized, too.
Here are some ways to shape-up your workspace:
- Take an afternoon and go through your things.
- Scan documents and organize them on your computer, then discard the hard copies to cut down on clutter.
- Make sure you have an adequate filing system in place for the hard copies you retain.
- Organize your work flow based on incoming projects, work in progress, and finished projects.
- Clean out your email inbox.
Spending just a few hours in the afternoon can work wonders for your productivity, especially if it means having fewer distractions and being able to more easily locate and track important items.
13. Streamline Your Routine
If you had to estimate, how much time would you say you actually spend with your nose to the grindstone, completely focused on work tasks? Surfing the Internet, taking breaks, checking Facebook, and even chatting with coworkers can make you a less efficient employee. If you really want to put your career on the fast track, it may be time to hone your schedule.
Write down the things you do during a regular workday. Chances are, there are several activities that distract you and take you off track. By checking emails only at designated times during the day and blocking time-wasting websites – check out the Firefox extension LeechBlock – you can free up your schedule and be much more productive.
14. Clean Up Your Social Networking
Sharing wild party pics may have been fun during your college days, but now, it’s time to clean up your social media profiles. You never know who’s checking them out, so be sure to scrutinize your Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn pages as if you were a prospective employer or job contact. Of course, your profiles don’t have to be total snooze-fests, just remember that they’re often the first interaction others are going to have with you. Make a good first impression or you could risk stunting your growth.
One effective way to clean up your online social presence is to make sure all your accounts present a united front. For instance, if you’re a freelance graphic designer, create pages that offer portfolio links and post articles about design that show you’re engaged and interested in your line of work. Again, think about your career as a business and building your “brand” via your online presence.
15. Consider Contract Work
You can also boost your career, gain experience, and make a little money on the side by accepting freelance and contract work. Whether it’s your main source of income or a moonlighting gig, contract work gives you the chance to challenge yourself with new projects, expand your professional network, and support your lifestyle all at once.
Before you start advertising for a side gig, however, be sure to check the employee manual at your current workplace. Sometimes, contracts disallow employees from working for competitors or from competing directly for business. If you write web copy at work and advertise your services as a contract or freelance worker, your company could see that as competition. Comb through your contract to make sure that freelancing is allowed.
Once you’re ready to strike out alone, you’re going to need to create your own contracts to use when working with clients. The best part about freelance work is the ability to control how much or how little you take on. Even if you just do a bit on the side, you’re building your portfolio and opening up new career opportunities. And who knows – if you succeed at freelancing, you may eventually be able to parlay that side job into full-fledged self-employment.
By taking matters into your own hands and working to make sure you’re as employable and upwardly mobile as possible, you give yourself the best possible chance to reach any career goals you set. Rethink the way you present yourself, and apply your talents to new projects and opportunities. Before you know it, you’ll have that promotion, land your dream job, or create a successful business of your own.